Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bert Wheeler's Worst Movie?

Poor Bert Wheeler. Is it possible that he was so neglected by 1939 that studios had completely forgotten how to cast him in a movie? Last night, courtesy of Bill Sherman, I watched Bert Wheeler's next-to-last feature, The Cowboy Quarterback (1939), for the first time. It is actually worse than I'd expected.. and I've never read anything positive about Cowboy Quarterback. In fact, it may be the most meritless thing Bert Wheeler ever blew his talents on (and, yes, I've seen Too Many Cooks (1931)). One mystery has been solved, however. I'd long wondered who could have been so wrongheaded as to cast Bert Wheeler as a half-wit Nevadan in a football remake of Joe E. Brown's Elmer, the Great (1933). Now it's clear that no one was thinking at all. CC smells like a contractual obligation or a half-assed favor. I can just imagine some Warner's executive saying "Just put him in something cheap and get him out of here!" Whatever the studio's motivations may have been, the film is so slapdash that it seems obvious no one really cared if Bert sank or swam. And it doesn't speak well for Bert's personal fortunes in 1939 that he would have agreed to appear in a 60 minute sub-B comedy in which he has to deliver every line with an absurd drawl.

There is one bright spot between all of this nonsense about Bert Wheeler being a football player from Nevada. About three-quarters of the way through the picture, Bert momentarily drops his "character" and does a variation on his signature vaudeville routine, the "singing a sad song while eating a sandwich" bit. It's a brief if genuine Bert Wheeler moment, but even this pales in comparison with Bert's performance of the same routine in The Diplomaniacs (1933).

Poor Bert. I still think that the one film he could have turned his career around with would have been a musical remake of Charley's Aunt. No comedian ever went wrong with Charley's Aunt.


Bert and his first wife and stage partner Betty in better times, circa 1915

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